Times and measurement. The RCA Dome in Indianapolis was a hive clicking and buzzing of tape and electronic stopwatches. Young men in identical gray jerseys line up to throw or jump or run or catch one after another. Their movements translate into statistics. All trying to do their very best to impress the coaches and scouts that speckled the sea of 57,000 midnight blue seats during the NFL combine.
In a corner of the stadium sat one who was almost as much of a rookie as those on the turf far below. Between press conferences and meeting with his new staff, Mike Tomlin ’95, took some time to evaluate talent for America’s most popular and prosperous sporting organization.
This year will be Tomlin’s first as a head coach in the National Football League. His meteoric rise through the coaching ranks is equivalent to his ability to turn a group of players into a disciplined unit. Tomlin has made that — and his uncanny skill to explain almost anything to nearly anyone — his trademark. Since his days playing wide receiver for Coach Jimmye Laycock from 1991-94, Tomlin made up his mind to be completely unequaled at whatever he was doing.
“You knew that he would be successful just because of his intelligence and he had a nice way with people and a great personality,” says Laycock. “It made you feel good to be around him. Guys like that tend to be successful, so I knew that Mike would be.”
His career catching the ball for the Tribe was stellar, as he made 101 receptions for 2,046 yards and 20 touchdown grabs. During that time, his mindset and that infectious personality blossomed and helped him grow into a leader and motivator. He was the player in the locker room at Zable Stadium to whom the rest of the team gave their full attention. Tomlin evolved into one of the pre-eminent teachers and motivators of football, and the perfect coach to lead a team. The perfect coach to lead the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I can’t put it into words how it feels on a day-to-day basis,” says Tomlin of his tenure as the Steelers’ head coach. “The reception that I have received here in Pittsburgh and around the NFL community has been very supportive. At the same time, I know that I am undefeated and unscored upon right now, so I’m honeymooning a little bit. It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to be a head coach in this league. And I happened to be the head coach of one of the most storied franchises in all of professional sport.”
His winding road to the top started as a coach right after graduation, stepping into a role familiar to him. He was a wide receivers coach at Virginia Military Institute for one season, before moving on to brief stints at both the University of Tennessee-Memphis and the University of Tennessee-Martin. He took some graduate level courses at the University of Memphis and became a student assistant with the football program.
In 1997, he found his way to Arkansas State University (ASU), where for his first season, he coached his old position. The following year, he switched to defense, and took over the Indians’ secondary. After one more year at ASU, he was hired on to coach defensive backs at the University of Cincinnati. When Tomlin arrived, the Bearcats’ secondary was ranked 111th in the nation for pass defense. Before the end of his first season, Cincinnati’s secondary ranked an incredible 16th.
His quantifiable success with the ASU defense sparked attention from the NFL. Tomlin got the call from then-Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ head coach Tony Dungy to take over his team’s defensive secondary. Tomlin accepted the position and his coaching turned a good secondary into the league’s premier squad, which ultimately culminated in a championship during 2002 with Super Bowl XXXVII.
He toiled in Tampa, creating a defensive secondary that was ranked near the top of the NFL year after year, until he was hired by the Minnesota Vikings as their defensive coordinator in 2005. The secret was out, and Tomlin was the league’s hottest coaching phenom.
The time spent in frigid Minnesota was good for Tomlin, as his increased responsibility led to more accolades. He molded his defense into a purple terror, rising from a 21st overall ranking in the NFL in 2005 all the way to 8th in his 2006 season. A remarkable achievement for one season. From there his name became a headline and a scrolling fixture for the news ticker on ESPN News. He was rumored to be taking over any and all head coaching vacancies in the NFL. But when he got the call from the Steelers organization and their owners, the Rooneys, everything changed.
“The media always speculates and attempts to be the ones to break a story,” says Tomlin. “I’m sure there was some of that. But the communication with the Rooneys that I had the entire two weeks of the process, even up until the last weekend was very clean. I had some questions answered that I had coming into the situation, without even having to ask those questions. I realized that this was a natural fit. And they felt the same way.”
He was announced as the 16th head coach in the 75-year history of the franchise, and the first African-American. Thus began another move. Tomlin and his family packed up and moved from Minnesota to the Pittsburgh area. The ninth move in just over 10 years. But, as Tomlin points out, they were all moves in the right direction.
“From a family standpoint, it’s another off season in transition,” says Tomlin who has three young children with his wife, Kiya ’96. “That’s somewhat difficult. But my wife is tough as nails and we’re dealing with it.”
Mike and Kiya are used to dealing with tough situations relating to athletics. The very first time they met in the training room at William and Mary Hall, it was under similar circumstances.
“Kiya was a gymnast and she was always hurt,” says Tomlin. “She was always in there getting something done. I had a shoulder injury or something at the time, and I guess it was October of her freshman year.”
Now that he’s in charge of the Steelers, Tomlin’s primary task for this first season is getting the team focused and on the same page. He also has to deal with players and coaches in transition and the NFL’s salary cap — something that makes personnel decisions even more difficult. Tomlin takes over a team that is just one year removed from a Super Bowl title, an envious position for any rookie head coach. Just don’t ask him about the playoffs quite yet.
“I think I have learned not to set goals in terms of wins and losses,” says Tomlin. “The reality is that we need to put a championship-caliber team on the field. We’re going to take the challenges one week at a time. It’s important that we establish our personality, being a tough, blue-collar football team.
“But the challenges that this game presents and the challenges that life presents are motivators for me,” says Tomlin. “I try to keep things simple from the standpoint of motivating people for things that they can hold onto. The thing that I am always conscious of is I don’t try to present too much. I present a focused platform of whatever I’m talking about and it comes from the heart.”
Some of these talents and techniques that Tomlin employs so well can be directly traced to his days at William and Mary while working under the Laycock system. Tomlin will be the first to tell you that he got a “leg up” on the competition by mastering the intricate offense that his old coach employs, and the simple rules that govern the Tribe’s football team.
“The way that Coach Laycock approaches football is unique from the standpoint that it is very professional,” says Tomlin. “It is very organized, detailed and sophisticated. While I was there, I saw the game the way I envisioned a coach would see the game. And as I have gotten into the profession of coaching, I realized how beneficial that time was to me.”
Coach Laycock says that he is not surprised at all that Tomlin has ascended to the top in the NFL. His memories of the player were of a guy who never quit. He never gave up on a season or a play or even at practice.
“Mike’s a level headed guy,” says Laycock. “He doesn’t have an ego that he has to deal with. He understands the situation in Pittsburgh and he’s around good people. We talked about that a little bit. I told him that he’s got a whole new thing to open up as he becomes a head coach. Nothing teaches you about being a head coach until you are one. And then you’ve got to trust your instincts and the decisions that you’re making.”
Alan Williams ’92 echoes those thoughts. Williams played with Tomlin at William and Mary and later coached alongside Tomlin while they were both at Tampa Bay. Williams, who is the defensive backs coach for the Indianapolis Colts team that won their first Super Bowl last season, understands exactly what sort of pressures Tomlin will be under and is sure that he will thrive in Pittsburgh.
“Mike is and will be a fantastic coach,” says Williams. “The first time that I got to coach with Mike was at Tampa, and he came into a tough situation. He followed Herm Edwards who was well-liked and well-respected and did a good job with the guys. That is an intimidating situation. He handled it well. The guys respected him from the first day that he came through the door — not just because he was the next secondary coach — but because he had information and knowledge for them. He’s a great communicator and he’s going to be a great head coach.”
Tomlin networks with Williams and many other coaches throughout the NFL that have ties to the College.
“I’ve met a lot of the William and Mary guys [in the NFL],” says Tomlin. “We take a lot of pride in being from that place — and we should. It’s a fraternity within the fraternity of coaching. You love league functions and league events because you get an opportunity to spend time with William and Mary men like Rip Scherer ’74 and Mark Duffner ’75. It’s special. We talk very little shop and just swap stories of our time at William and Mary.”
Tomlin looks back fondly on his days on the field and off the field at the College. From the guys at Paul’s Deli who made his favorite hot turkey sandwich to the all-nighters that he spent upstairs at Phi Beta Kappa Hall with his nose in a sociology book, his experiences at William and Mary are some of his most cherished memories.
“The reputation of the school from an academic standpoint is international,” says Tomlin. “That’s one of the reasons why I went there. I am as proud of being a part of the William and Mary family as anything that I’ve ever done.”
For the now, he’s focused on putting the most competitive Steelers team on the field for the 2007 football season. And judging from the consensus of all the experts, Tomlin will do just that and the future is as bright as he ever imagined when he was growing up in Newport News.
“He’ll be great,” says Laycock of his former player. “He knows what he’s doing. He’s going to have a great career and I am proud to say that I am a Mike Tomlin fan.”
This was originally written for The College of William & Mary.